Friday, August 12, 2005

In Search of Community

Somebody once said, "With God and books, no man need ever lack for companionship." Nice thought. Ten bucks says they didn't believe it either.

Don't you ever get tired of being lonely? Maybe I'm feeling this way because it's quarter past four in the morning and I can't sleep because of my insomnia, but I'm weary to the bone of it. I'm tired of the pretense required for relationships. I don't want people to accept me because they think I'm clever, witty, intelligent, sincere, or because I have an uplifting disposition and cheery smile. I want to be accepted for who and what I am, even the parts of me that are unpleasant.

Why is it so difficult to have an honest relationship with another human being? Is God the only person who can look at our quirks and not be so disturbed that he limits the relationship to a hearty handshake every Sunday, with a vague promise that he'll invite us over to his place for dinner sometime?

What relationships we do have often are shallow and exist for a reason other than for their own sake. We have friendships with the parents of our children's playmates, with the people who suffer with us at work, with people we think can help us, and with people we adopt as special projects. We argue politics, we discuss religion, we analyze the latest movies and salivate together over the upcoming football season. There is nothing real or substantial about any of these relationships: no understanding, no passion, no commitment — and in our hearts we know it.

The church claims to be inviting and it even offers unconditional love, but in my experience it usually doesn't mean it. You're welcome at church if you vote Republican, dress smart, support middle-class values, believe the right things, and don't rock the boat. Don't even bother attending if you're gay, lesbian, voted for Kerry last year, or doodle on the bulletin while the choir sings "Nearer my God to Thee."

God didn't intend for us to be drones that act, talk and think like everyone else. He gave us each gifts, abilities, insights and a personality that adds something unique to the mix. Put us together right, and you should have a dynamic community where everybody's needs are met, where the community at large benefits, and where people flock to join God's kingdom every day. Unfortunately, being put together properly means having a relationship, and relationships aren't easy.

Not long ago, I belonged to a church in New Jersey that prided itself on the depth of the relationships among its members. To the church's credit, it was truly unique in my experience in its commitment to building community. Through a concatenation of events not worth getting into here, the church self-destructed in 2002 after a year under a new, manipulative pastor.

How many of the relationships forged in that church survived its destruction? I can't speak for the other refugees, but most of ours didn't last. I could rattle off a list of people we used to associate with on a regular basis from that church. My wife and I ate dinner at their homes; we went on double dates with them; we invited them to our wedding, our housewarming, and to our first daughter's baby dedication. No longer.

It's as if, once we stopped going to the same church and no longer saw each other every week, all the things we had had in common suddenly dried up. Now when we bump into one another at the supermarket, we stare at one another in awkward silence and fumble for something to say. If we're lucky, we've seen three of those families once in the past year. Our social calendar is empty and we're left to navigate parenthood and marriage on our own.

In fact, my wife and I have managed to maintain a few relationships with refugees from our old church, but that's because we have an excuse to. Every week we attend a Bible study one of them hosts, where three other former refugees attend. Take away that study, and the whole support structure for our continued familiarity goes with it.

I want to believe that it's possible to have relationships that are real and honest, but I've seen little enough evidence that they're anything less than miraculous. It takes time to build that trust, and only a moment to shatter it. Loving another person, letting them see the face that hides behind the mask, means opening ourselves up to pain, and it can hurt just as much when the person stays as when they leave.

We pass most of our lives so utterly alone, even as we protest how much relationships matter, and how much we want to be with other people. I'm tired of being alone. I want to belong, and too often, I find myself standing alone.

Copyright © 2005 by David Learn. Used with permission.


Newbirth said...

I understand about not seeing people after you leave a church. It's happened to me before and will likely happeb again. It's just the way things are.

I am glad my church has been there for me through everything. They've helped me through some rough times.

marauder said...

"Just the way things are" is a terrible indictment against people who claim to have had a life-changing encounter with God.

I'm glad for the relationships we've had, but I wish they weren't relationships of convenience. We owe one another better.

HighwayMiles said...

It's been the story of my life. I hate the word "brother" anymore. I have no illusions about the worth of my relationships with people in my past churches, and am holding on to a very tenuous illusion about the depth and value of the current relationships I endeavor to cultivate (present company excluded, obviously).

Too often, relationships in church are based FIRST on the common belonging, THEN on social commonalities, THEN, perhaps, on deeper, more meaningful connections. Whatever falls first takes the rest of it along. If you reverse the list of things people share, and the deeper things are valued and pursued first and most passionately, then they will be much less likely to disintegrate. Battle scars and highway miles, especially those earned shoulder-to-shoulder, are impossible to erase, impossible to forget and impossible to ignore in one another.

All I know is that the things and people I have needed in life have come along at precisely the right moments, and my recent past is no exception.

Of course we deserve better than what churches make out of us and what we do to each other in the wake of that effect. Relationship, truly realized, is a spiritual thing and can in no way be manufactured.